Three questions we never stop asking by Michael Kellogg
What can I know, what may I hope and what should I do? The author proceed by juxtaposing a pair of thinkers on each of these three questions. The first pair of the pair is a builder, the second a destroyer. One explorer the promise of a theory and the other the consequence of its ruin.
The first pair deals with the possibility of philosophical knowledge: Plato & Ludwig Wittgenstein. The second pair deals with the existence of God: Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche. The third pair deals with virtue: Aristotle and Martin Heidegger.
The word philosophy comes from the Greek: philo-sohia, the love of wisdom. Philosophy -called the queen of the science because of its superposed ability to knit them all together into a unified vision, The history of philosophy divides roughly into three approaches to this question: the metaphysical (beyond physics), the epistemological, and the linguistic. The greatest of the metaphysicians is Plato, whose well known theory is ‘theory of forms’.
Plato offers a metaphor of a line divided into two unequal sections: one representing the intelligible world and one the visible world. He divides the visible world in turn, into images. We use images, he says, to form beliefs and hypotheses about the originals. That is the method of the so-called science, for which their hypotheses are first principles. In the intelligible realm, by contrast, we use thought to obtain understanding direct, demonstrable knowledge of the immutable first principles from which we can reach conclusions, without making use of anything visible at all, but only of forms themselves, moving on from forms to forms and ending in forms.
The key article of faith for Plato, however, is that the model of mathematical knowledge can be extended to moral issues. IN our own hierarchy of knowledge, we would agree to place mathematics at the top, followed by the natural sciences, followed by social sciences (including economics, psychology and sociology). But Plato places philosophy with mathematics, as offering a purer, better and more certain knowledge than the changeable sciences.
We are lovers of sights and sounds, Plato notes,. We focus on beautiful sounds, beautiful colors and beautiful shapes, but our thought is unable to see and embrace the nature of the beautiful itself. As a consequence, we have no true knowledge.
This is Plato’s theory of forms. The forms are eternal, immutable and nonphysical. Plato, unlike Socrates, believes that the end result of probing is knowledge, not doubt. Plato asks future philosophers to choose: they must either accept some theory, such as the theory of forms, or they must explain how discourse can be possible when our words have no objective anchors, no intelligence to which they correspond.
Ludwig Wittgenstein makes three main observations that meet with increasing resistance.about how we actually use words. First, an inner process stands in need of outward criteria. We ascribe emotions, sensations, thoughts and feelings to others based on their behavior. Second, ‘I do... not.. Identify my sensations by criteria. Third, ‘my words for sensations are tied up with my natural expressions of sensations, my language is not a private one.
Wittgenstein simply denies that philosophy as traditionally conceived, can satisfy that longing. “The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. It seems then that we are destroying everything that is constructive and beautiful in philosophy.
Existence of God
Religious thought typically takes one of three approaches to the question of God.
First, fundamentalism posits a God with an attitude, A God who issues commandments and actively intervenes in the world. We pray to the fundamentalist God to take our side in life and to reward our obedience after death. The fundamentalist God has revealed himself and his wishes through one or more texts such as the Hebrew Bible, the New testament, or the Koran, which are to be taken, more or less literally as a guide to God’s favor.
The second approach celebrates a God who underwriters, but does not interview in the world. This is the God of Benedict Spinoza who believes not in everyday miracles (divine events), but in the miracle of the everyday. For Spinoza, God is immanent in all things and our sense of awe and mystery in the face of nature in both the beginning and the end of religious thought. Kant is deeply influenced by Spinoza and Kant argues forcefully that God is a living presence in the universe and that only immortality can make sense of our existence as moral beings.
The third approach is atheism (or agnosticism, which amounts to nearly the same thing). The atheist finds the hypothesis of God, neither helpful nor instructive, but all too often a force for ignorance and violence. A rash of recent books by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, promotes atheism. They present compelling arguments against fundamentalist religious belief but stop there, as if the death of the fundamentalist God were an endpoint, rather than - as Nietzsche thinks - the beginning of the inquiry. Far from treating the death of God with smugness and complacency, Nietzsche believes it signals a crisis in thought that necessities a complete revaluation of values.
Kant Does not suggest that we have any theoretical basis for concluding that all of nature is like an organism in this sense. Nor does he suggest that God actively intervenes in the world of our experience in any direct manner.Kant anticipates Einstein. Like Kant, Einstein places morality at the center of all human endeavors. “Our inner balance and even our existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. He is dismissive of the idea of ‘a personal God;’ actively intervening in human affairs or influencing the course of events in response to prayers and ritual observances. Yet he feels that behind all the discernible laws and connections of nature, ‘there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable’ something there remains something ‘whose beauty and sublimity reached us only indirectly’. Einstein feels “veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend, and utter humility toward beyond anything that we can comprehend and ‘utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos’. This Einstein declares ‘is my religion’ and it is Kant’s religion as well.
The death of God:
In 1882, Nietzsche announces the death of God. By the death of God, Nietzsche does not of course mean that God once existed, but no longer does. He means that the believe in the Christian God has become unbelievable. With the death of God, the earth has been unchained from the sun. Man has been separated from all the absolutes that gave meaning and value structures to his existence.
“Genuine, original Christianity ‘ - which he considers ‘not a faith, but a doing - will be possible at all times. But the religious person, he claims, is an exception in every religion. The moral value judgements of the Christian church were developed for the many, for the few. “
The aristocratic value-equation (good=noble=powerful=beautiful=happy=beloved of God). Christianity, however, effected a remarkable inversion of these aristocratic values. Christianity celebrated meekness and humility and the opposite of worldly success. The week, unsurprisingly resented the oppression and dominance of the strong. They longed to overthrow that strength or at least turn it to their own advantage. Christian morality was imposed by the many against the few, by the weak against the strong for the protection of the weak. This process occurred not in open vault, but through more devious and subtle means. Christianity introduced concepts of guilt and sin in order to cabin the vigorous, free, joyful activity of the strong.
Christianity, morality accordingly took its stand precisely against life, against fullness, against strength. it constituted a major revaluation of values, what Nietzsche calls ‘the slave revolt in morality’. The slave revolt in morality begins when resentment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values.
Nietzsche portrays three metamorphoses: of three metamorphoses of the spirit, I tell you: how the spirit becomes a camel and the camel, a lion and the lion, finally a child. Camel Represents the ‘strong reverent spirit that would bear much. The camel wholly absorbs the existing values and tradition that they represent and whose culmination they are. ‘Like the camel that, burdened, speeds into the desert, this the spirit speeds into its desert”.
When the spirit becomes a lion, who could conquer his freedom. His revolt against the constraints of tradition. The lion creates a new freedom for himself and assumes a right to new values. But to create new values and a new paradigm, ‘that even the lion cannot do’. For that the child is required, for the child is innocence and forgetting and freed himself from the tradition in which he operates, the creator must find a new affirmation within himself and forge a new paradigm in accordance with his deepest needs. “The spirit now wills his own will and he would have been lost to the world now conquers his own world’.
Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ is largely concerned with public virtue. The virtue of character that Aristotle discusses - courage, generosity, justice, truthfulness, sociability, and even temperance - are usually presented as the virtues of a public man in a public setting. Those virtues moreover, are themselves publicly derived that is they follow accepted norms of right conduct.
In Heidegger, Western philosophy comes full circle and is ready to begin again. He is not the end of the story, but only another of many beginnings. Philosophizing ultimately means nothing other than being a beginner. Heidegger has passed through T S Eliot's:
‘Unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning”.
Heidegger beckons us to follow.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
‘Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time